Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925

By George M. Marsden | Go to book overview

was devoted to popular piety, simple Bible study, and soul winning—themes that one might associate with Moody, Sankey, or Alexander. The other twenty-five percent, however, gave the movement its distinctive character and distinguished it from the general revivalist trend of which it was a part. These distinguishing features need to be explained, especially some rather remarkable intellectual traits and assumptions. For understanding these and for understanding their relationship to American culture, the growth of dispensational premillennialism within the larger revivalist and anti-liberal movements offers some most intriguing clues.


V. Two Revisions of Millennialism

In 1909 William Newton Clarke, a leading liberal Baptist theologian, looking back over his career, recalled that during the 1870s American evangelicals had debated with unusual fervor the question of the return of Christ. "The premillennial and postmillennial views of the advent," he recollected, "were presented, elaborated, and defended, sometimes with conspicuous power." 1

This debate concerning the "last times" was intimately related to a crisis in basic assumptions that was rending the Western Christian world during Clarke's lifetime. New patterns of thought demanded that intellectual inquiry focus on describing the natural forces that seemed to determine how change took place. No longer viewing knowledge as the fixed truths of special or natural revelation, human scientific inquiry now concentrated on speculative hypotheses that explained natural processes of development. In the shape of Darwinism and higher criticism, these assumptions led toward conclusions that seemed to threaten the foundations of traditional Christian belief. Even the highest ideals, truths of the heart, moral sentiments, and the religious experiences through which some Christians said God was known, were often viewed as largely the product of historical developments.

For many liberal Christians the only way to save Christianity at all was to affirm that God continued to reveal himself both in profound religious and moral experiences and in cultural processes as well. Despite naturalistic explanations of historical development, God could still be seen in the progress of humanity and civilization. Cultural advance revealed the kingdom of God. Thus the topic of the coming of the kingdom, so intensely discussed of the 1870s, involved not only the basic issue of the nature of Christianity, but

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